Derek Webster became an artist on a sleepless night in 1978. Lying awake with a headache, trying to think of a way to keep the family poodle out of his garden, he had a vision of a unique fence.
"I got up that moment," he recalls. "And I went in the backyard and I said 'Oh, I got it now.' And the next day I started to put things together." The result was a painted picket fence busily decorated with hubcaps, human figures doubling as planter boxes, and airplanes with rotating wood propellers, with "bottle trees" made of old lengths of hose and beer bottles rising up among the plants.
Two years later gallery owner Paul Waggoner spotted Webster's garden and offered to exhibit his sculptures. "I'd never seen art before," says Webster, a native of Belize, in his thick Caribbean accent. "We didn't do art." But today he's probably Chicago's best-known outsider artist, and his work has been sold to collectors all over the world.
Webster's most famous works are his life-size wooden sculptures of people, which he decorates with plastic beads and bottle caps. He calls them his "friends" and strongly believes in their personalities and spiritual dimensions. "At one time it was hard for me to part with them, because I like them and I want to keep them," he says. "But as days go by I realize I can't keep them, I have to part with them, and I get ideas for new ones."
Webster's last year has been difficult. In June the truck he used to collect materials for his sculptures was stolen. Then a month later, at the age of 71, he had a stroke that paralyzed his left side. A lean and somewhat muscular man, he now walks with a pronounced limp. And though he has recently regained some feeling in his left hand, he's still unable to work.
To help cover Webster's medical bills and costs associated with caring for his wife, Edith, who suffers from Alzheimer's, School of the Art Institute professor Marilyn Houlberg and Edge Arts founder Maggie Rouche are organizing a sale of Webster's work, with all proceeds going directly to the artist. "He's a very humble man, and he's actually very shy," says Houlberg. "He depends on friends that have known him for a long time and have bought his work. This is our chance to support him until he can get on his feet to continue working on his artwork, which he is very anxious to get back to."
Benefit sale for Derek Webster
When: Sat 10/15, noon-6 PM
Where: 733 W. 18th
More: Sales by appointment; contact Marilyn Houlberg at 312-666-4420
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.